Highland Champion

By: Hannah Howell


CHAPTER 1


Scotland, Spring 1475

What was an angel doing standing next to Brother Matthew? Liam thought as he peered through his lashes at the couple frowning down at him. And why could he not fully open his eyes? Then the pain hit, and he groaned. Brother Matthew and the angel bent closer.

"Do ye think he will live?" asked Brother Matthew.

"Aye," replied the angel, "though I suspicion he will wish he hadnae for a wee while."

Strange that an angel should possess a voice that made a man think of firelit bedchambers; soft, unclothed skin; and thick furs, Liam mused. He tried to lift his hand, but the pain of even the smallest movement proved too much to bear. He felt as if he had been trampled by a horse. Mayhap several horses. Very large horses.

"He is a bonnie lad," said the angel as she gently smoothed one small, soft hand over Liam's forehead.

"How can ye tell that he is bonnie? He looks as if someone staked him to the ground and rode over him with a herd of horses."

Brother Matthew and he had always thought alike in many ways, Liam recalled. He was one of the few men Liam had missed after leaving the monastery. He now missed the touch of the angel's soft hand. For the brief time it had brushed against his forehead, that light touch had seemed to smooth away some of his pain.

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Highland Champion

by Hannah Howell

"Aye, he does that," replied the angel. "And yet, one can still see that he is tall, lean, and weel-formed."

"Ye shouldnae be noticing such things!"

"Wheesht, Cousin, I am nay blind."

"Mayhap not, but 'tis still wrong. And, he isnae at his best now, ye ken."

"Och, nay, that is for certain. Howbeit, I am thinking that his best is verra good, aye? Mayhap as good as our cousin Payton, do ye think?"

Brother Matthew made a very scornful noise. "Better.

Truth tell, 'tis why I ne'er believed he would stay with us."

Why should his appearance make someone think him a bad choice for the religious life? Liam did not think that was a particularly fair judgment, but could not seem to give voice to that opinion. Despite the pain he was in, his thoughts were clear enough. He just seemed to be unable to voice them or to make any movement to indicate that he heard these people discussing him. Even though he could look at them through his lashes, his eyes were obviously not opening enough to let them know he was awake.

"Ye dinnae think he had a true calling?" asked the angel.

"Nay," Brother Matthew replied. "Oh, he liked the learning weel enough, was verra quick and bright, but we could only teach him so much here. We are but a small monastery, nay a rich one and nay a great teaching place. I think, too, that he found this place too quiet, too peaceful. He missed his family. I have met his kinsmen, and I can understand. A large, loud, somewhat, weel, untamed lot of men they are.

The learning offered eased that restlessness in Liam for a 9

Highland Champion

by Hannah Howell

while, but it wasnae enough in the end. The quiet routine, the sameness of the days began to wear upon his spirit, I think."

Liam was a little surprised at how well his old friend knew and understood him. He had been restless, still was, in some ways. The quiet of the monastery, the rigid schedule of the monastic life had begun to press in upon him and feel more smothering than comforting. He had missed his family. For a moment, he was glad that he seemed unable to speak for he feared he would be asking for them now like some forlorn child.

"'Tis hard," said the angel. "I was most surprised that ye settled into the life so verra weel. But ye have a true, deep calling, dinnae ye?"

"Aye, I do," Brother Matthew replied softly. "I did e'en as a child. But, ne'er think I dinnae miss all of ye, Keira. I did and do most painfully at times, but there is a brotherhood here, a family of sorts. Yet, I will probably visit again soon. I have begun to spend a great deal of time wondering how the bairns have grown, if everyone is still hale and strong, and many another sort of thing. Letters dinnae tell all."

"Nay, they dinnae." Keira sighed. "I have missed them all too, and I have been gone for but a six month."

Keira, Liam repeated the name in his mind. A fine name.

He tried to move his arm despite the pain and felt a twinge of panic when it would not respond to his command. When he realized he was bound to the bed, his unease grew even stronger. Why would they do that to him? Why did they not wish him to move? Were his injuries so dire? Was he wrong to think he had been given aid? Had he actually been made a 10

Highland Champion

by Hannah Howell

prisoner? Even as those questions spun through his mind, he fought past his pain enough to tug against his bonds. A groan escaped him as that pain quickly and fiercely swept through his body from head to toe. He stilled when a pair of small, soft hands touched him, one upon his forehead and one upon his chest.

"I think he begins to wake, Cousin," Keira said. "Hush, sir.

Be at peace."

"Tied." Liam hissed the word out from between tightly gritted teeth, the pain caused by speaking that one small word telling him that his face had undoubtedly taken a severe beating. "Why?"

"To keep ye still, Liam," Brother Matthew said. "Keira doesnae think anything is broken, save for your right leg, but ye were thrashing about so much, it worried us some."

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